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How does the EU plan to revamp its rules on waste shipments?

Updated: Jan 3

A short overview of the transboundary movement of e-waste, the health risks present in the informal e-waste sector, and the EU's planned regulatory changes on waste shipments.


 

E-waste and its transboundary movement


E-waste is the waste that results from electrical and electronic equipment (such as mobile phones, laptops, TVs, lamps, and kitchen appliances) when it is disposed. Upwards of 50 million tons of e-waste is produced every year. E-waste is the world’s fastest-growing waste stream. It is estimated that by 2030, the annual generation of e-waste worldwide will have increased by approximately 30%.


The production of e-waste and its transboundary movement from high-income to low- and middle-income nations brings about a whole spectrum of social and environmental justice issues. There are currently still a few loopholes in the laws that govern the transboundary movement of e-waste. Most notably, electronic and electrical products, which are near the end of their lifespans, can still be exported as “used” or “second-hand” goods.


Key issues resulting from the transboundary movement of e-waste include labor exploitation, soil and groundwater contamination, and premature deaths. Notably, the recycling of e-waste under inadequate conditions in low- and middle-income nations has immensely negative impacts on the health of both the local environment and human beings.


 

Health risks in the informal e-waste sector


Only an estimated 17.4% of e-waste produced in 2019 was processed in formal recycling facilities; the rest was dumped illegally. Illegally disposed e-waste is predominantly shipped to low- or middle-income countries, where it is then commonly recycled in the informal sector. It is hard to find an estimate for the total number of informal workers, but the WHO has reported that as many as 12.9 million women, and over 18 million adolescents and children (as young as 5 years), are actively engaged in the informal e-waste sector.


The informal e-waste sector is known for using unsafe practices. Electrical and electronic devices are dismantled by hand to reclaim valuable materials. Devices are also commonly burned in an open fire to melt away plastic coatings and other less valuable materials. Notably, workers typically do not wear protective equipment and the burning of e-waste releases highly toxic metals. Moreover, mercury and acids may be used to recover gold from the waste.


Workers in the informal e-waste sector are at risk of being exposed to more than 1000 harmful substances. E-waste contains a variety of hazardous materials, including heavy metals (e.g. mercury, lead, and cadmium) and other hazardous chemicals (e.g. CFCs and flame retardants). When recycled using unsafe practices, e-waste toxins commonly contaminate the air, soil, and groundwater. Exposure to toxins from e-waste increases blood lead levels, decreases lung functioning, causes abnormal thyroid function, and reduces life expectancy. Moreover, it increases stillbirths, premature births, and the risk of malformations during pregnancy.


The toxic chemicals contained in e-waste are particularly dangerous to children. Children are smaller in size, have less developed organs, are undergoing a rapid rate of growth, and have a lesser ability to eradicate toxic substances from their bodies. The health issues prevalent amongst children exposed to toxins from e-waste include lung and respiratory illnesses, impaired thyroid function, DNA damage, and increased risk of chronic diseases (such as cancer and cardiovascular disease).


 

Waste exports from the EU


According to the United Nations' Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme, a total of 12013kt, or 16.2kg per capita, of e-waste was generated in Europe in 2019, making Europe rank “first worldwide in terms of e-waste generation per capita”. In 2017, 43% or 5106kt of the e-waste produced in Europe was formally collected, which means that “Europe has the highest [overall] e-waste collection and recycling rate (5%)". While there is no precise data on the amount of e-waste being exported from the EU, it is clear that the international trade of waste as a whole has been increasing and that the EU is an active participant in this.


According to the European Commission, “nearly 70 million tonnes of waste are shipped between EU countries each year”. Moreover, “the EU exported around 33 million tonnes of waste to non-EU countries and imported around 16 million tonnes” in 2020. The export of waste out of the EU “has become a common way of dealing with some waste streams generated in the EU”. As waste crime (such as illegal waste dumping) is fairly lucrative, there are unfortunately also various organized criminal groups active in the field. It is estimated that “between 15% and 30% of waste shipments [made in or from the EU] might be illegal” and that this illicit market generates roughly EUR 9.5 billion in annual revenues in the EU.


The trade of waste can be beneficial for our economies. Waste is a valuable source for secondary raw materials, which can “replac[e] virgin materials and [thereby] contribut[e] to a more circular economy”. Yet, if toxic waste is moved in an uncontrolled manner and not managed properly at its destination, this can harm human health and “have disastrous environmental consequences”. Therefore, the Basel Convention from 1989 deals with “the control of transboundary movements of hazardous wastes and their disposal”. Moreover, there is an OECD decision from 2001, which “establish[es] a control system for waste shipments for recovery within the OECD area”. In the EU, these rules are implemented through the Waste Shipment Regulation from 2006.


 

Planned regulatory changes in the EU


Exports of waste from the EU to third countries – particularly non-OECD members – have increased significantly since the original adoption of the Waste Shipment Regulation. According to the European Commission, “[t]he lack of detailed provisions to ensure that waste is managed sustainably in the countries of destination has led to weak enforcement and environmental and public health challenges in those countries”. On 17 November 2021, the European Commission therefore adopted a proposal for a new regulation. Two years later, on 17 November 2023, the European Parliament and European Council then reached a political agreement on waste exports and shipments.


Under the current Waste Shipment Regulation, “shipments of hazardous waste and waste destined for disposal are prohibited to non-OECD countries outside the EU”. Shipments made to OECD countries “are generally subject to the prior notification and consent procedure”. It is currently a key problem “that illegal traders widely bypass existing rules, resulting in environmental crime in the EU and in third countries”. The proposed regulation has three main goals. These are “ensuring that the EU does not export its waste challenges to third countries; making it easier to transport waste for recycling and reuse in the EU; and better tackling illegal waste shipments”. Overall, through its new measures, the EU has said that it hopes to take a “greater responsibility for its waste”.


Under the new rules, waste can only be exported from the EU to non-OECD countries if it is suitable for recycling, its processing will be sustainable (subject to independent auditing), and the target country wishes to import the waste. The “[e]xport of plastic waste from the EU to non-OECD countries will be prohibited” and exceptions to this will only be made if strict environmental conditions are met. With this ban, the EU aims to “prevent environmental degradation and pollution in third countries”. In line with this, the new rules set out “stronger enforcement and cooperation in fighting waste trafficking”. By imposing “high standards for waste management in third countries importing waste from the EU”, the EU also hopes to create “environmental and economic benefits” for waste importing countries.

The European Commission will compile a list of countries to which waste imports are authorized. It also plans to monitor waste exports to OECD countries, and it will suspend exports to given countries if “there is no guarantee” for sustainable waste treatment.


 

The EU’s move towards a circular economy


The movement of waste between EU Member States is currently slowed down by administrative procedures. This hinders the transition to a circular economy on an EU level. With the new rules, the EU hopes to reduce pollution and use its waste as a resource to “support a clean and circular economy”. New digitalized procedures and the harmonization of waste classifications will make it easier and faster to ship waste within the EU for re-use and recycling purposes. There will be “stricter conditions for shipments of waste for incineration or landfilling”. Moreover, to stop waste from being misrepresented as “used goods”, new binding criteria will be set out.


The new measures will only start to apply three years after the regulation enters into force. According to the EU’s impact assessment “no major challenges” are expected for the processing of “additional quantities of ferrous metal, non-ferrous metal and paper waste”. (Notably, these three categories “represent the highest share of waste currently exported [to] outside the EU”.) Beyond this, many industries have already been planning and investing to increase waste uptake in their production processes as a part of their decarbonization strategies.


 

Next steps


Following the European Parliament’s and the European Council’s political agreement on 17 November 2023, the two must still formally adopt the regulation for it to come into force. The proposed regulation has been met with mixed reactions from NGOs and industry groups. There has been general support for the EU’s push for stricter measures to target illegal waste trafficking. There are, however, concerns that the new regulation may also end up placing trading partners located outside of the EU at a disadvantage. In light of this, it will be interesting to see what the impact of the regulation will be in the long-term.


 

About the author


Christine Nikander is the founder of the environmental and social sustainability consultancy, Palsa & Pulk. She studied law at the universities of Columbia (New York), Edinburgh (Scotland), and Leiden (the Netherlands). Christine has been doing scholarly research into the legal and policy framework surrounding e-waste and conflict minerals since 2015.



 

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Read more about e-waste here:

 

Read more about the international legal framework around e-waste here:

 

Read more about the health impacts of e-waste here:

 

Read more about the EU’s proposal for a new Waste Shipment Regulation here:

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